Friday 30 September 2011

Westlake Score: The Jugger (Parker #6) by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake); Allison & Busby Hardback, 1986

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

This latest Westlake Score – which, for those who've evidently been dozing or "goofing off" at the back of the class, are posts in which I detail newly acquired editions of various of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's novels – may not look like much to you, chief, but to me it represents another step on the path towards owning every one of Richard Stark's Parker novels in hardback.

Published in 1986, this is the Allison & Busby hardback edition of The Jugger – the sixth Parker novel, originally published in the US in 1965. To recap: in the 1980s, British publisher Allison & Busby reissued almost all of the initial thirteen Parker novels – from Point Blank (a.k.a. The Hunter) to Slayground – in hardback, the first time that many of those novels had been made available in that format. (A&B also published Deadly EdgeParker #13 – in 1990, but only as a paperback.) For book collectors, then, the Allison & Busby editions afford almost the only opportunity to own those twelve Parkers as hardcovers. Almost... but not quite. I'll return to that in a moment.

Of course, this is something that only really matters to book collectors – for whom hardbacks are always preferable to paperbacks – but matter it does (to us), and consequently a good number of the A&B hardcovers have become quite scarce and rather valuable. For instance, I had to order this copy of The Jugger from New Zealand – from the lovely folks at Codexco, Christchurch, an undertaking which gained an additional wrinkle with the recent earthquake there – while AbeBooks currently lists just two other copies of this edition, the cheapest of those being fifty quid. Mind you, the A&B editions are an imperfect solution to a collecting conundrum: about half of the Parkers they reissued were printed on inferior paper stock, which has since browned, and all of them are littered with typos. (Allison & Busby were once described to me by a secondhand bookseller as "a cowboy outfit".) The dustjacket designs are an acquired taste, too; most were designed by Mick Keates, and while I do like the first wave of jackets he created, with their bold typography, the second wave – which included The Jugger – I'm less keen on.

Even so, the Allison & Busby Parkers are much in-demand by collectors, and always command good prices when they (infrequently) appear on eBay. However, at least as regards a scant few of those thirteen Parker novels, there is another option for collectors. Because some of those Parkers were published as hardbacks a good decade or so prior to the Allison & Busby editions. They're incredibly scarce, and little-seen... but in my next Violent World of Parker/Existential Ennui cross-post, I'll be showcasing all three of them.

Meanwhile, on the non-Westlake/Stark front, next week I'll hopefully have a couple of reviews for you, both of them novels set – although published sometime after, in 1978 and 1979 – around World War II. One of those books is by Len Deighton, and the other sees the return to Existential Ennui of our good friend, Ross Thomas...

Thursday 29 September 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: a First Edition of Piers Morgan's The Insider (Ebury Press, 2005), a Review Thereof, and an Alan Clark Connection

This final post in a series on politically-themed diaries – a series that, judging by the paltry number of hits thus far registered on each of the two previous posts, has been as indifferently received as the political party conference season which inspired it – concerns a volume which has more to do with tabloid journalism than with the inner workings of state or government. But newspapers and politics are inextricably intertwined, and the author of these diaries enjoyed almost unparalleled access to the men and women at the top of Britain's governmental tree, among them the then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Plus, the ostensible subject of the last two posts, Tory politician Alan Clark, crops up in the diaries too...

Piers Morgan's The Insider was first published in hardback in the UK in 2005 by Ebury Press, under a dustjacket designed by Two Associates, featuring photographs of Morgan with the great, the good, the not-so-good, and, er, the Queen. I bought this copy just the other day in a Lewes charity shop, but I read it a few years ago in paperback, and it is, you'll doubtless be surprised to learn, a thoroughly revealing account of what it's like to be a tabloid newspaper editor in Britain.

These days Morgan is best known – especially to Americans – as a judge on America's Got Talent and the host of Piers Morgan Tonight, but from 1994 to 2004 he was editor of the (now defunct) News of the World and then the Daily Mirror. The Insider comprises his diaries from this period, and it's an extraordinary account. Morgan isn't the most stylish of writers, and his tendency to name drop can become wearisome, but as an insight into what a tabloid editor does, The Insider takes some beating. Morgan reports the countless conversations he had with Tony Blair (and Cherie Blair) and many other senior political figures, all of whom courted him and solicited his opinion on a variety of matters. New Labour's (understandable) obsession with the press permeates the book, while Blair alone warrants a column-and-a-half's worth of entries in the index.

It's all fascinating stuff, and even the celebrity side of Morgan's job has taken on an extra significance in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. I must admit I haven't read Morgan's follow-up, Don't You Know Who I Am?, as his post-newspaper career is of rather less interest to me, but The Insider is a cracking read and no mistake.

I mentioned in the previous post that I'd be returning to "the Coven", the mother and her two daughters Alan Clark had an affair with, because that particular extramarital dalliance also crops up in The Insider. The News of the World had been trying to establish the identities of the Coven ever since Clark's first volume of Diaries had been published in 1993, and on Sunday 29 May, 1994, under Morgan's editorship, the newspaper finally exposed them, naming judge's wife Valerie Harkness and her two daughters. Far from becoming enemies, however, Morgan and Clark subsequently became fairly friendly. Later that same year the two met at the Conservative Party Conference (which rolls around again next week, bringing us full circle) and retired to the bar, where Clark demanded tens of thousands of pounds for the "distress" the NOTW's story had caused him and his wife.

"Look, Alan," replied Morgan, "that's a bit on the pricey side to be honest. I've got a better idea. You give me fifty thousand and we won't disclose the other nine women who've come forward to say they had affairs with you."

Clark snorted, then leaned closer: "Nine women . . . God – what were their names?"

And on that disgraceful note, it's time to move on from the political diaries (cue ecstatic cheering...), and return to the crime fiction, with a Westlake Score...

Wednesday 28 September 2011

A Review of a First Edition of Alan Clark's Diaries: In Power 1983–1991 and Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993)

Continuing this short run of posts tying in with Britain's party political conference season, we move on from the second volume – or, chronologically speaking, first – of Alan Clark's Diaries, to the first volume – or rather, second:

Alan Clark's Diaries were first published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1993. I can't actually recall where I bought this first edition/first impression, but the UK hardback went through umpteen printings, so while first editions litter the likes of AbeBooks and charity and secondhand bookshops up and down the land, first impressions aren't so common. This volume, which covers the years 1983–1991, has picked up a subtitle since its original publication, and is now known as Diaries: In Power. It caused quite the sensation when it first appeared, for all manner of reasons, but primarily for the light it shed on the Arms to Iraq/Matrix Churchill affair – with which Clark, as Minister of State for Trade in the Conservative Government, was intimately involved – and for the infamous affair Clark was embroiled in with a mother and both of her daughters (together nicknamed "the Coven").

I'll be returning to that disgraceful multiple dalliance in the third and final political diaries post, but it's worth reiterating here how exceptional Clark's Diaries in general – and this volume in particular – are, almost in direct proportion to how objectionable he himself was. His political views are pretty much the polar opposite of mine, and certainly to the right of even the most foaming of true-blue Tories, while he was an absolute shit to his wife and the most horrendous snob. But his near-fascistic leanings, his fawning appreciation of Margaret Thatcher (whom he called "the Lady"), his rampant libido and his attempts to cast himself as a Lord in all but name – forever bemoaning the state of Saltwood (his inherited Kent castle home) and his need to sell off its treasures in order to fund his mania for classic cars and his high stakes gambling – are what make this initial offering of his Diaries so compulsively readable – that and the fact they're beautifully written.

Of course, like many diarists, Alan Clark didn't write his Diaries in a vacuum. Committed diarists are usually well aware of their journal-writing forebears, and one diarist in particular exerted a profound influence on Clark:

Chips: The Diaries of Henry Channon was first published in hardback in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1967; the edition seen here is a more recent paperback edition from 1993, re-edited and with a new introduction by Robert Rhodes James, and presumably issued to tie in with the publication of Clark's Diaries. Like Clark, Channon was a relatively minor political figure in the period his diaries cover – 1934–1958 – but, also like Clark's, Channon's diaries afford an outsider's clear-eyed viewpoint on momentous events, including the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII and the fall of the Chamberlain Government in 1939–40.

Channon was as much of a snob as Clark, and equally as distasteful in his own way, but his diaries are elegantly written and endlessly fascinating. Clark frequently mentions Chips in his own Diaries; according to Alan Clark's editor, Ion Trewin, Clark kept Channon's diaries close to hand, and "rarely failed to dip [into them] with his early morning tea". Unlike Clark's Diaries, however, Channon's have fallen out of print; the last edition was a 1996 paperback, and AbeBooks currently lists just thirteen copies of Chips in any edition, the cheapest being about forty quid. (I bought my copy in Brighton Books years ago, for much less than that.)

No such problem with the final volume of diaries I'll be looking at, however: those are in cheap and plentiful supply, in first or any edition, a consequence, perhaps, of the low esteem in which their author is held these days...

Tuesday 27 September 2011

A Review of a First Edition of Alan Clark's Diaries: Into Politics 1972–1982 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000)

We're in the midst of the political party conference season here in the UK; this week it's the turn of the Labour Party, who have descended en masse on Liverpool to debate how they can make Ed Miliband seem dynamic and purposeful – or at the very least mildly interesting – while last week the Lib Dems invaded Birmingham and next week the Tories will take Manchester, all to the overwhelming indifference of the British populace. (All three main parties have forsaken their traditional seaside conference locales this year for some reason.) So, in a slight change of tack from Existential Ennui's regular course, I thought I'd take a look at a few politically themed books this week – a mixture of recent and older acquisitions, all of which take the form of diaries, and all of which are connected in some way to this man:

Alan Clark, for those who don't know, was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton from 1974–1992 and for Kensington and Chelsea from 1997 until his death in 1999. He held various junior governmental posts, including Minister of Trade at the DTI and Minister for Defence Procurement at the MOD, and became a privy councillor in 1991. He was a historian (and son of another famous historian, Kenneth Clark, the man behind the television series Civilisation), an author, a serial philanderer, a collector of classic cars, an inveterate snob and a frequent gambler who lived in an inherited castle in Kent (whose treasures he occasionally flogged off in order to sustain his extravagant lifestyle), skied regularly in Switzerland and held political views only marginally to the left of those espoused by Germany's National Socialists (he was an admirer of Enoch Powell, and once called himself a Nazi in a letter to The Guardian). But above all he was a committed diarist, and it's in this capacity that he's best remembered today.

Published in three volumes, Clark's Diaries are by turns revealing, insightful, hilarious, hypochondriacal, vain, narcissistic and utterly disgraceful, and rank among the best political diaries ever committed to paper, rivalled only by those of Samuel Pepys and especially Henry "Chips" Channon, on whose diaries Clark modelled his own. They are, quite simply, brilliant, characterized by an elegant and fluid style, and shedding light on the life of an MP – albeit a highly unusual and idiosyncratic one – and the inner workings of government. (John Hurt – who was so magnificent recently in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – played Clark in a 2004 BBC adaptation of the Diaries.)

The volume seen in this post was the second to be issued, but chronologically is the first in the series, covering the years 1972–1982, and was published posthumously in 2000. I picked up this hardback first edition/first impression for a couple of quid (which is about what you'd pay for it online, except without the additional postage) in a Chichester charity shop (having already read it in paperback) during my summer hols, partly because Clark's Diaries are among my favourite books ever, but also because it makes for a nice companion to one of the books I'll be blogging about in the next post, which will encompass both another volume of Clark's Diaries, and the diaries which exerted the biggest influence on Clark's...

Monday 26 September 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories: "The Question", with Larry M. Harris; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March / July 1963)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Rounding off this intermittent series of posts on crime novelist Donald E. Westlake's early-1960s science fiction stories, I've a particularly pithy tale which Westlake was the co-writer of, rather than the sole author. And of all the SF stories I've been reviewing in this series and the previous series, I think this might just be my favourite.

"The Question" was first published in the States in the March 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, although the one you can see above is the British edition, published some months later in July. Westlake's co-author was Larry M. Harris, alias Laurence M. Janifer, a science fiction author who also penned a handful of sleaze paperbacks, which is possibly how his and Westlake's paths crossed (as in, Westlake also wrote sleaze softcovers, rather than our Donald was devouring them or anything). "The Question" was later reprinted in the 1978 Doubleday collection 100 Great Science Fiction Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov (with Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander), so it's slightly easier to come by than some of the other Westlake SF short stories I've reviewed. It's also a decidedly short short, clocking in at just two-and-a-half pages.

Now, I've tried to keep these reviews of Westlake's science fiction largely spoiler-free, but in this instance, I'm going to go ahead and reveal the ending, because it's so intrinsic to the nature of the tale. Therefore, if you have any intention of sampling "The Question" – and if you do, you'll be better off tracking down the American edition of F&SF or the Asimov collection, for reasons I'll return to in a moment – stop reading now.

The story begins with an irritable, solipsistic sort named Rossi – "sometimes prey to the impression that the universe was aimed, like a pistol, straight at his head" – sitting alone in a room marking English term papers. The telephone rings, and a voice asks him what the weather's like outside... At least, I assume that's what is asked, because in the British F&SF in which "The Question" appears, there's be a line of text missing. The offending section runs like this: 

'Hello there,' a voice on the other end said, a bright and cheery weather it was, outside.'

The missing line falls between "cheery" and "weather", but luckily, the question is repeated shortly thereafter, so I can get the gist of it. Anyway, Rossi quickly becomes infuriated by this asinine line of enquiry. The voice, however, is insistent, and after almost slamming down the receiver, Rossi's curiosity gets the better of him, and he informs the voice that "it looks like a nice day". That's not quite enough for the voice, so Rossi explains that it's a little cloudy. "You can't see the sun, you say?" responds the voice, and after Rossi concurs, the voice thanks him. But just before the voice rings off, Rossi overhears something evidently not meant for his ears: 

Just a few words, but in those few words Rossi realized that he had been right, right all along. Everything centred around Rossi. Maybe he would never know why, or how. But the world, the entire world, was—truly and completely—aimed right at the Rossi head.

And what are those few words? 

'It's O.K., Joe,' the voice said casually. 'He can't see it. You can take it away.'

And with that, the story ends. It's a metaphysical head-scratcher, for sure: the eponymous question applies not only to the one posed by the anonymous caller but to the tale itself, which left me with more questions than answers. One thing it brought to mind for me was The Truman Show (1998), which also played with the concept of solipsism and the juxtaposition between apparent normality and a secret world behind the scenes. Certainly Westlake and Janifer adhere to the dictum of "less is more" with the story, although it could be argued a little more of the "more" might have been of benefit; Rossi and his surroundings are so lightly sketched that the eventual punchline lacks some impact. However, that's a minor quibble. "The Question" does precisely what it sets out to do, namely leave the reader utterly perplexed and pondering the meaning of that final line of dialogue.

And that's yer lot for Westlake SF – at least for the moment; there'll be an additional SF post down the line. Next on the non-SF Westlake front I'll probably have a Westlake Score, but ahead of that, with the annual political party conference season in full swing here in the UK, I'm heading slightly off piste from Existential Ennui's traditional concerns with a selection of politically-themed books, all of which, to a greater or lesser degree, have a link to a celebrated diarist, famous philanderer and notoriously right-wing Member of Parliament...